Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Yitro (Exodus 18-20) 5780/2020 Stringing Your Violin

From the time we are children until we reach old age, freedom is something we all desire. Small children want the freedom to go to sleep when they want to as well as choosing their diet, i.e. mostly junk food. Teenagers complain there are too many rules at home and school; middle aged people talk of mid life crisis and how they would like the freedom to explore the world, have new relationships, and not be tied down to job and family. Older people don’t like being told by their children and grandchildren how they should spend the remainder of their lives or how irresponsible they are with their health and medical care; they want to be left alone-to be free.This week’s Parsha has the climactic event of the giving of the Torah, the Almighty’s instructions for a meaningful and pleasurable life. Pleasure? Isn’t the Torah a book of laws restricting our freedom? How could it possibly be pleasurable to observe a detailed guidebook addressing every area of life from birth until the grave?   Also, why was the Torah given almost immediately after the Exodus; wouldn’t it make more sense for the people to acclimate to their newfound freedom (from their Egyptian taskmasters), give them a few years to navigate their new lives, and only then give a structure (the Torah) for how to live?Before addressing these questions, we need context to understand what was happening back then. According to Ramban (1194-1270), (the book of) Exodus has three themes; the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, and the building the Mishkan (“Tabernacle,” portable Temple in the dessert). Metaphorically, it is the life journey each of us must endure. In Hebrew, Egypt is called Mitzrayim, which means limitation or constriction. We all have our personal Egypt -the demons of resentment, fear, discontentment, laziness, arrogance, low self-esteem and other monsters that that dominate our thinking and limit the choices we make in life. Some of these demons are due to the family in which we were raised, a trauma or unpleasant incident in school or with peers. In order to lead an emotionally productive and fulfilling life, we need to leave our personal Egypt; we need to overcome the limitations and constraints of our past. In Jewish consciousness, we say that G-d gives every person the capacity to be liberated from that which enslaves him or her as long as (s)he is willing to recognize and confront it. There’s an Egypt within each of us that we have to break through. By doing so, we give ourselves the freedom which enables us to see the beauty inherent in us.But freedom has to be coupled with responsibility. Freedom that is merely the absence of restriction will not bring fulfillment to a person. A precise metaphor demonstrating this was given by the winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in literature; Indian author Rabindranath Tagore. “I have on my table a violin string. It is free to move in any direction I like. If I twist one end, it responds; it is free. But it is not free to sing. I take it and fix it into my violin. I bind it and when it is bound, it is free for the first time to sing.”We make a very serious mistake when we confuse freedom with purpose. The violin string has freedom when it rests on the table but it has no purpose. The only way to use the string is to restrict it by binding it to the frame of the violin. Being simply free doesn’t give one meaning or purpose. Freedom is the condition that allows me to actualize my purpose but no logical person would say that freedom itself is a goal.That is why the Exodus from Egypt had to be coupled with the giving of the Torah. Discipline and commitment are prerequisites for using freedom effectively. The giving of the Torah is really a means to a greater end. One needs a system and ideology of values greater than oneself, one in which people’s vested interests don’t invade and destroy them like a cancer. Just as the violin string needed to be fixed to the violin to actualize its purpose, so too can people find themselves through the system, wisdom, and instructions found in the Torah.Dr. Viktor Frankel, author of Man’s Search for Meaning (voted #1 out of 1000 “Books Every Psychology and/or Counseling Doctoral Student Should Read”) was a German psychiatrist who survived Nazi concentration camps. He famously said that aside from food, the greatest human need is meaning. People today have more freedom then at any other time in American history but in spite of this unprecedented era of personal autonomy, people aren’t any happier or fulfilled. Since the end of WWII, the suicide rate had quadrupled for men and doubled for women. Last year, Reuters Health reported that “suicidal thinking, severe depression, and rates of self injury among U.S. college students more than doubled over less than a decade.” What are we to make of this? Millions of people, especially young people, have freedom but aren’t sure what to do with it and are frustrated with life. No amount of unbridled behavior, money or career opportunities seems to provide them with meaning. They are prepared for college and a career but education and self-support are not ends, they are tools to help get one where (s)he wants to go. But where, exactly, is that?We now understand why the Torah, the Almighty’s instruction book, had to be given almost immediately after the Jews’ being liberated-freed. When the Jewish people left Egypt, they were free but freedom without responsibility would have been a waste.What do you do with your freedom? Where do you find meaning? Whether you are a frustrated violin string on the table wanting to create your soul’s beautiful music or a huge success in whatever you pursue, realize that we Jews have a guide that has withstood not only persecution, pogrom, and Holocaust, but also eras of providence and good fortune. Instead of searching in every corner of the globe for meaning, try giving your own people and their books of timeless wisdom a chance. Good Shabbos    
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 Good Shabbos
Rabbi Oppenheim
Charlotte Torah Center